PoliticsMarch 12, 2024

A disinformation campaign, the 2023 election and new government policy


A Groundswell-sponsored speaking tour during the 2023 election is a case study in disinformation, writes researcher Byron C Clark.

“Now Doug, I’m only letting you on the show today if you promise, hand on heart, you’re not going to get me into trouble.” 

That was how Jamie Mackay (a former sheep farmer and a current equity partner in a Southland dairy farm) introduced soil scientist Doug Edmeades in a November 2022 episode of The Country, Newstalk ZB’s flagship rural radio programme. “You are a bit of a climate change denier, you hate regenerative agriculture, now you’re saying methane’s not even a problem. Who do I believe, Doug?” 

Edmeades tells him he can believe the science, before stating that the press is “captured by one side of the argument” and “the other side of the argument doesn’t get out”. 

According to a 2021 report from the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “methane has been second only to carbon dioxide (CO2) in driving climate change during the industrial era”. This was echoed in the 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which described methane (CH4) as “the second biggest contributor to global warming” noting that about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from land-related activities like agriculture. New Zealand is unusual compared to other industrialised countries in that 43% of greenhouse gas emissions are methane rather than carbon dioxide. More than 85% of those methane emissions come from animal agriculture.

To meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, New Zealand plans to reduce biogenic methane emissions by 10% below 2017 levels by 2030, and by between 24 and 47% below 2017 levels by 2050. This plan is part of the Global Methane Pledge, to which participating countries have agreed to take voluntary actions to contribute towards a global 30% reduction in methane emissions by 2030.  Achieving this will almost certainly require the reduction of herd sizes – though not necessarily a reduction in the amount of milk and meat produced.

“Doug, I’m confused by the science, and I don’t think I’m alone there,” Mackay tells his guest. “Because my understanding is methane, short-lived gas compared to CO2, is much more potent in the atmosphere while it’s there?” 

“Well that’s what IPCC and climate alarmists say, but it’s actually not true,” replies Edmeades. The interview continues in this vein:

“I’m saying in terms of the methane issue, it’s a dead duck [that] shouldn’t be considered. They should just withdraw all that policy. Certainly the CO2 needs to be considered, but when CO2 is compared in an atmosphere of water, it doesn’t behave as the IPCC would have you believe.” 

“Doug, isn’t CO2 nature’s fertiliser?” 

“Of course it is. Look at it another way, apparently there is about 400 parts [per] million CO2 in the atmosphere if that were to double, bless it, if it were to double then plant growth would increase while about 20-30% so there’s no downside to this, there’s no downside.”

“Well. There is a downside: it’s called climate change and global warming. Are you denying that that’s happening, Doug?”

“No, I believe that climate changes all the time, the question is, is there any evidence that humans affect the natural climate changes and the answer that I’ve come up with, that other people have, is that there is no evidence of a human effect on climate changing.” 

Doug Edmeades (Photo: Supplied)

The “nature’s fertiliser” argument contains a grain of truth. Increased carbon in the atmosphere does increase plant growth, but the negative impacts on climate change on crops need to also be taken into account. Contrary to Edmeades, there are many, many downsides. For one, crops grown with elevated CO2 levels become less nutritious. Researchers have found that if the level of CO2 in the atmosphere reaches 550 parts per million — the level expected by mid century — food crops will lose enough nutrients to cause a protein deficiency in 150 million people.

The statement that there is no evidence of a human effect on climate changing is an outright falsehood. While Mackay does respond with “I don’t buy that” before moving on to questions about regenerative agriculture (the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change was well established by 2022) platforming this fringe view did a disservice to listeners of The Country.

Two weeks later, on the recommendation of Edmeades, the guest was Tom Sheahen, described as “an American academic and scientist who says methane and nitrous oxide are, wait for it, irrelevant greenhouse gases, so it begs the question, is he a climate change denier or are New Zealand farmers being sold a pup by Jacinda [Ardern] and James [Shaw]?”

A few minutes into the interview, Sheahen is asked straight up if he’s a climate denier.

“We call ourselves climate sceptics,” he responds. “The term denier was of course invented as a pejorative term to make anybody who criticised the Al Gore point of view sound like a Nazi, OK?” According to Sheahen, serious scientists ignore the label “climate denier” because it’s “nothing but a PR stunt by the keepers of the orthodoxy who wanted to push their own narrative.”

At the time of this interview, Sheahen is in New Zealand on holiday, but in 2023 he returns with the support of Groundswell for a speaking tour. According to a short article about the Invercargill event he was to speak at on the website WhatsonInvers, Groundswell had initially asked Beef + Lamb NZ to fund the visit but in the end had to fund the tour privately.

Tom Sheahen speaks in Invercargill (Photo: YouTube)

“Tom calls methane an irrelevant gas when it comes to its effect on the climate. That’s what New Zealand farmers want to hear,” announces host Peter Williams on Groundswell Radio, the group’s podcast. It’s a revealing statement. While Sheahen was out of step with the scientific consensus on climate change, he was saying what farmers wanted to hear, and as such was being given a platform on the likes of The Country and Groundswell Radio. He also joined former Federated Farms president Don Nicholson and Southland District Councillor Jaspreet Boparai for a lengthy interview on Greenwashed, the climate change focused show on Reality Check Radio (RCR), the online platform started by the anti-vaccine group Voices for Freedom.

RCR, unlike the other shows he appeared on, advertised Sheahen as President of the Science & Environment Policy Project (SEPP). SEPP is an American advocacy group that disputes the scientific consensus not just on climate change, but also on ozone depletion and second-hand smoke. The funding of SEPP is opaque, but it’s been revealed that they have received money from ExxonMobil and the American think tank Heartland Institute, an organisation that has for decades worked to discredit established science on climate change. The now defunct New Zealand Climate Science Coalition (NZCSC), had received $25,000 from the Heartland Institute. Doug Edmeades, who in addition to appearing on The Country has also been a guest on Greenwashed, was at one point the agricultural spokesperson for NZCSC. During that time he penned a submission on the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill that concluded:

“Do increasing concentrations of GHG [greenhouse gases], and in particular carbon dioxide, from man’s activities, result in an increase in global temperatures? It is concluded that this hypothesis can be rejected solely on the evidence that global temperatures are not determined by atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. In addition the paleoclimate record is consistent with this conclusion; changes in global temperature both positive and negative have occurred long before the advent of man and the use of carbon-based energy.” 

Following Sheahen’s speaking tour, On September 14 2023, Groundswell launched a new campaign opposing the taxing of methane emissions, and solicited donations from supporters. The website associated with the campaign states “We reject the GWP100 standard for measuring methane as outdated and unscientific and accept the IPCC’s AR6 Report making clear that new science states ruminant methane’s warming ability is exaggerated by 300 to 400%.” GWP100 refers to Global Warming Potential over 100 years, and is used to create a common metric between short-lived greenhouses cases like methane and long-lived CO2.

The 2023 IPCC report Groundswell refers to does not contain the word ruminant. Methane however is mentioned throughout. As in the 2022 report, it is noted as the second biggest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide. The report notes that in modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C, global methane emissions are reduced by 34 [21 to 57]% below 2019 levels by 2030, and by 44 [31 to 63]% in 2040 —similar reductions as to what New Zealand has pledged. 

Groundswell found a political ally in the Act Party. “Farmers in countries who are our biggest trading partners are not paying a price for their methane emissions. Under Act, New Zealand farmers wouldn’t either,” stated dairy farmer and Act MP Mark Cameron in a press release promising to “end the war on farming” (issued before the launch of Groundswell’s campaign). While New Zealand is the first country to use tax on ruminant methane to incentivise reducing emissions, four out of five of New Zealand’s largest trading partners have signed up to the Global Methane Pledge. 

Jamie McFadden, Groundswell’s environmental spokesperson, had an opinion piece published by The Press on October 6, 2023. “This election is a turning point in our history,” wrote McFadden. “And while the difference between the major political parties may not seem huge, the outcomes following the election will be.

“I do not say it lightly; this election is about the survival of family farming, rural communities, natural heritage, respect for people and property, local decision making and democracy.”

Groundswell spent $141,061 trying to influence the outcome of the election. The bulk of the advertising done by the group was on social media. Many of the ads made reference to the plight of rural New Zealand, while others highlighted issues around heath, education and crime. “New Zealand is unrecognisable and Labour is the problem 🚩” read the text accompanying one advertisement, next to a black and white photo of Chris Hipkins captioned “64% of New Zealanders believe we are more divided than ever before.” That ad had half a million impressions on Facebook. 

Groundswell got what they’d hoped for. The coalition agreement signed between National and Act includes a promise to “review the methane science and targets in 2024 for consistency with no additional warming from agricultural methane emissions.” A review of methane science and targets will no doubt show that reaching warming targets will require a reduction in methane emissions. The review may delay those reductions, though farmers already had until the end of 2025 before needing to pay a price for emissions. The whole affair is a case study in disinformation, and reminds us all to be aware of who is trying to influence us, and to what end. 

This article was made possible thanks to a grant from the Bruce Jesson Foundation to write about climate change disinformation. Byron C Clark will also be speaking on this topic at the Climate Disinfo night school presented by Tohatoha.

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